Some time in the warlike ‘Forties, my father got hold of a car that must have endured than twenty years of hard abuse.
It was a tourer, he said, and he showed me how the top folded down. He said the detachable windows were mica. I didn’t know what mica was (I’m still not sure what it is). Many years later I could have said they looked like yellowish plastic, but we didn’t have that kind of plastic then, so to me they were glass that could be bent.
He was proud of the windscreen wiper, which worked only on the driver’s side. It was electric, he told me.
He turned a metal switch attached to it and the motor whirred into life. I listened to the reduction gears inside it without knowing that such things existed, and I watched the wiper blade as it arced across the windscreen. I liked the wiper as much as he did. I liked it so much that I couldn’t leave it alone.
There was no space on our narrow bit of land for a car, so my father made an arrangement with the neighbours. He would park the car next door in their driveway. They had no car of their own. I don’t know if he paid them. Perhaps they liked having a car in their driveway because it made them look wealthier than they were. When he parked the car each night, my father threw a tarpaulin over it. I don’t know why he did this. The body’s gloss had left it long ago, and even if it hadn’t there wouldn’t have been much of it left after that heavy tarp had finished with it.
I wasn’t supposed to to play in the car, but with the tarp on it nobody could see me. I used to creep under the tarp, open the lockless door on the driver’s side and crawl in. Then, like any other kid, I would pretend to drive. For the sound of an engine noise I used the windscreen wiper motor. I never spent more than a short time driving like this, in semi-darkness, under the tarp but my driving had an effect.
“I can’t understand why the battery keeps running down,” My father said to his brother – Well, that’s what I think he said. I wasn’t really listening. I was dreaming of being in the car, under the tarp with the wiper running. And then I was not dreaming but actually there, in the driver’s seat. Pretending to drive but hearing no engine, only an electric whirring sound.
I didn’t hear them coming. I was too busy trying to swing the wheel. They must have seen the tyres moving. Perhaps they thought some thief was at work, trying blindly to drive the car away, a thief beneath the tarp.
When the attack came, I got the biggest fright I can remember. Off came the tarp, The doors on either side swung wide and two savage men came diving into the car wearing murderous looks.
My father hauled me out of the car and then reached in to switch off the wiper. But when he and my uncle had pulled the tarp off, the heavy canvas had caught the blade. The motor stopped, the blade bent and a fuse blew.
It seems strange to me now that parents no longer beat their children. Back in the Forties, if the sound made by thousands of kids being walloped – boys mainly – had been somehow poured into one great yelp the racket would have deafened God himself. Every night, fathers came home from work and mothers pointed. cuffs, buffets and thumps were duly given. It was accepted by all normal working-class people that boys who were not beaten grew up bad. Perhaps that’s what happened to me. My father, although strong and violent of tongue, simply wasn’t a beater. He would give me a hard flip with his fingertips, enough to let me know that there was more where that came from, and that was all – or nearly all. Then my mother would take over, and her punishments were cruel in the extreme – to bed without food, to my room far from the radio, to silent contemplation of my faults, or in a room full of people who wouldn’t speak to me, nor I to them.
I was never forgiven, but also never punished. My father clamped a thick hand on my right hand, lifted my face to his and said, “Don’t say anything about this.” He nodded towards our house. “In there, I mean.” He whispered to his brother, who nodded wisely. The reason for this behaviour did at last seep into my consciousness. My mother disapproved of the car. She thought it an unwarranted expense. Additions to the cost of running it – new tyres, batteries, repairs and maintenance – seemed to her a wanton waste. So she was never to be told about the wiper.
And of course, during an attack of insanity, I told her. Instead of exploding, she remained silent. She may even have smiled, for I had damaged a thing that had no right to live In our family.
Next time we were all out in the car, it was raining. The wiper blade had more or less been straightened, so that as it made spasmodic trips across the windscreen it gave the driver an inkling of what lay ahead – but the noise! I think one of the little gears inside it must have lost a tooth. It didn’t whirr. It grated, and every few minutes my father would sigh deeply and grunt with pain in sympathy with the mechanism.
I spent some years wrecking other things. There was a toaster that somehow got a fork in it, a radio whose plywood back could be unscrewed, a bicycle that suffered from bent spokes . . . I wasn’t out to destroy these things. I simply longed to know what happened if, being naturally clumsy, you still thought it possible to get to know things by dissecting them.
But it was the insult I had offered to the wiper That stuck in my father’s mind. Thirty years later I would catch him looking at me in a suspicious manner, as if to say, Has all the delicate machinery been locked up?
But by that time he had other reasons not to trust me.